INTERVIEW: "The Winner"
I recently completed a blog tour for The Winner: A Ballroom Dance Novel. It went well, thanks for asking. In addition to the reviews I received, I wrote two guests posts (you can read them here and here) and was supposed to have a featured interview, the latter of which didn’t happen.
Because the blogger was offended by some of my answers!
Since I worked hard on this interview, I decided to post it on my own. Due to potential copyright infringement, I replaced the blogger’s questions with a brief overview of them.
Can you guess what got this blogger so riled up?
QUESTION 1: This was about the structure and my choice to have dual narrators
While standardized technique is at the root of competitive ballroom dancing, couples present a personal ethos based on choreography, performance, and visual appearance. Competitive dance floors can be crowded, and couples vie to catch eyes. Along the perimeter, judges stand, marking couples to be recalled if the event is larger than a final or, if it’s a final, ranking couples one through six, best to worst.
Each judge possesses a values system that informs what he or she considers to be good dancing. For some, they’re drawn to musicality; for others, it may be clever choreography or excellent basics. Thus, results vary from dance to dance, from competition to competition. While some judges claim to be completely objective, that’s impossible.
I opted to use dual narrators to give the reader a taste of what it’s like to be a judge: When Carly and Nina face off, who should win? More importantly, WHY do you think Carly or Nina should win? And is that decision based on what you know about their dancing or what you know about them as people?
By rooting for Carly or Nina, the reader gets in touch with his or her values. To me, that’s the best type of reading — when a reader learns something about him- or herself based on the way his or her emotions become engaged and how he or she justifies them.
I spent a decade in the world of competitive ballroom dancing, and although I’ve returned to the concert dance world save teaching social dance, my experiences color the narrative. Although I had to alter elements of the competitive dance world for the sake of the narrative, the one thing I refused to change was the dancing. All descriptions are as true to my lived experience and those alongside whom I danced with the caveat that words can’t fully capture the visceral sensation of moving one’s body to music.
As for the combination of competitions and social interactions that populate the book, that’s a direct reflection of the two floors on which ballroom dancing takes place — the social and competitive. I used these two environments to reflect the conversational and competitive nature of ballroom dancing.
QUESTION TWO: This was about Archer, Carly’s brother who has low-functioning autism
Autism is on the rise, and I, for one, know people personally or tangentially who are faced with the rigors of raising a special needs child. Autism can be a lifelong condition, and the more severe the case, the more resources are needed. Due to the precariousness and profiteering of the American medical system, families often have to figure it out themselves, which can mean relying on siblings and/or other family members for assistance.
I focused on Carly’s experience since much of the research and many of the stories are about autistic individuals. I read a number of first-person accounts about growing up alongside an autistic sibling, which ranged from negative to positive. I situated Carly’s experience toward the negative, mostly because of how severe Archer’s autism is, but with positive interactions as well. Carly feels enormous guilt when she leaves because she knows firsthand how important her presence is to her family.
QUESTION THREE: Asking me to name dancers who’ve inspired me
While writing The Winner, I was inspired by Smooth dancing in the late ‘90s, specifically David Hamilton and Olga Fornapova, Edward Simon and Michelle Officer, and Michael Mead and Toni Redpath. While technical and choreographic chops have improved since their era, these couples presented such an articulated artistic statement that I still see their dancing in my head years after witnessing it.
Currently, I work as a professional dance critic, so my interests have shifted from performers to choreographers. I’m thrilled that, FINALLY, women are choreographing for ballet. I’ve been paying close attention to Gemma Bond and Emery LeCrone. I’m also fascinated by choreographers like Katy Pyle, Miguel Gutierrez, and Trajal Harrell who use a queer perspective to interrogate various dance disciplines. I’m always first in line to review butoh, which is a form of Japanese performance art that flirts with taboo imagery and the grotesque.
QTESTION FOUR: My opinion about shows like Dancing with the Stars and Strictly Come Dancing
These shows have certainly made ballroom dancing more visible. I would argue, though, their effect is negligible since they present a cartoonish representation of ballroom dancing. Most people aren’t going to get inspired to learn after watching a dance that relies heavily on flashy tricks and gimmicky setups.
Ballroom dancing is incredibly nuanced and detailed. Even choreographed sequences require a deep understanding of lead and follow. On these shows, dancers learn routines that they execute with little understanding of, say, the historical context (for instance, many Latin dances embody the trans-Atlantic slave trade in which European contradanse collided with African dancing). Their dancing is akin to reciting a speech in a foreign language: One is unfamiliar with the syntax, semiotics, and subtext of that language, but can still sell the main thrust. While this makes for great television, it doesn’t offer insight to the dance form or the world in which it exists.
QUESTION FIVE: This was about my favorite memories dancing and the music that was playing at the time
As a ballet dancer, I loved performing to Tchaikovsky. His music gets underneath the movement and elevates it to transcendence. As a ballroom dancer, my favorite moments have occurred on the social floor. It’s a treat to dance well with someone you just met. Now, I mostly dance around with my two-year-old daughter, and my joy stems from seeing her discover the pleasure inherent in moving.
QUESTION SIX: This was about The Pas de Deux (my novel that will be released in early 2018) and my inspiration behind my dance novels
I’m EXCITED about The Pas de Deux! It’s my first time writing in third-person, from a male perspective, and in a time period that’s not the eternal present. Inspiration took root after reading Suzanne Farrell’s autobiography Holding on to the Air. In the 21st century, George Balanchine comes across as a human resources nightmare: coercive, retaliatory, and constantly romancing his employees.
While there are parallels between Balanchine and Mr. D (the artistic director in The Pas de Deux), Peri, the older ballerina, and Mark, the whiz-kid dancer, are fully fictional. The plot is also invented although realistic in regards to place (Los Angeles), time (the ‘80s), and opportunity (the creative leeway afforded European companies versus American ones).
I consider my genre to be dance rather than women’s fiction, the category in which my books could fit. This means two things. First, I don’t ever want to repeat myself; thus, each novel must approach dance in a new way. Second, I can scrutinize issues that interest me through the lens of dance. In The Piece, it is intimate partner violence while, in The Winner, it is the effect of parental ambition.
Although The Pas de Deux is set in the ‘80s (for narrative and metaphorical purposes), I wanted to examine matters that feel relevant to the 21st century — female agency and toxic masculinity. Sometimes, placing things in a different time period can allow us to see them afresh in our own.
QUESTIONS SEVEN: How I came up with and why I chose to equate Ballroom (the style, not the general dance form) to mathematics
Well, I’m a dance writer, so that’s pretty much what they pay me the small bucks to do — interpret and then relate dance in imaginative ways that can be meaningful to dancers and non-dancers alike. One of the big things I pay attention to in ballroom dancing is a couple’s use of negative space. Absence can often convey more information than presence.
QUESTION EIGHT: About the foundering relationship between Oleg and Nina and their values
For Nina, winning was everything: rewarding her mother for her mother’s sordid sacrifices as well as establishing herself as a bona fide American, which is to say as a winner. I had a coach once tell me that only winners retire; everyone else quits. Nina internalized that idea — quitting was for losers.
Oleg had a different approach. When it became apparent that he and Nina were never going to win Nationals, he was happy to pick a new dream — one familiar to many Americans — owning a business and buying a big home in the suburbs.
Nina and Oleg also exemplified some competitive couples who, when the glue of a shared goal breaks down, so does the relationship. Lots of energy and resources go into winning, so the relationship can exist in a vacuum, feeding on one thing. When that’s gone, what’s there to talk about? Dream about?
QUESTION NINE: Carly’s choosing dance over family
Although sweet and naïve, Carly, to me, is a radical character. Women are often thrust into the role of caretaker whether it aligns with their ambitions or not. Leaving her family — and more importantly, not coming back even when they ask her to do just that — isn’t something every woman could do, would want to do.
When reading the first-person narratives of individuals who grew up with autistic siblings, I was struck by the sacrifices both big and little these individuals made, whether it was never having a sleepover or giving up a hobby because their family didn’t have the money or time for the child to pursue it. Their stories resonated with me, and I wrote Carly’s story with them in mind.
I want to emphasize that The Winner is not a critique of families with an autistic child. These families are doing everything they can with limited resources and an uncertain medical system. It is, however, designed to point out that families with special needs children could, perhaps, benefit by being looked at holistically by those who provide treatment and study autism.
QUESTION TEN: Carly’s relationships with the various men with whom she falls in love
Carly was desperate to be the apple of someone’s eye, which made her blind to the manipulative tactics of Trey and Jason, both of whom exploited her niceness — in their opinion — benignly. She loved easily, which proved to be a blessing and a curse. She could move on quickly, but she also found herself in relationships where she had to fit herself around the man’s needs.
QUESTION ELEVEN: What I want readers to take away from The Winner
I wrote The Winner to function as a multi-level meditation on winning. There’s the obvious takeaway that’s encapsulated in the tagline “Step in to step out”: You can’t win if you don’t take the chance of losing — true for both competitive ballroom dancing as well as life itself. I also suggest winning can come with a hefty price tag, which may turn it into a losing proposition.
Then, there’s what may be the most interesting thing I try to say about winning. Winning matters when it matters to other people, specifically future dancers. Forging a dance legacy is tricky since the idiom exists in the present tense. Inspiring another generation of dancers, to me, is the epitome of winning since your legacy is carried in their bodies.
QUESTION TWELVE: Who’s my favorite character
For those who’ve read The Winner, it may surprise you to learn that Trey Devereux is my favorite character. I imagined Trey as a Louis XIV type who finds himself adrift in and damaged by the modern world.
QUESTION THIRTEEN: This was about what I adore about ballroom dancing
The best thing about ballroom is that EVERYONE can do it. Please don’t bend my ear about your two left feet or inability to hear a beat. You can learn. For real. You might never be in contention for a national title, but you can learn enough to dance at a wedding or at a Salsa club. Plus, it’s more fun than you can possibly imagine. Although there’s plenty of drama in The Winner because, after all, it’s a novel, the ballroom dance world is joyous and filled with laughter — things that we could all use more of. So step in to step out!
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